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Kickabout areas and small-scale pitches – enjoying sport "around the corner"
They're where legends are born. Everyone is familiar with the small, often completely enclosed sports courts that were typically built at the heart of housing estates and where football and basketball can be played in a very tight space. Be it on a "kickabout area" or in a "cage" – generations of amateur footballers have spent their childhoods on such pitches. Last year "kickabout area culture" was even awarded intangible cultural heritage status by the Culture and Science Ministry of the state of North Rhine Westphalia. For such facilities, which started being built in the 1920s and most of which date back to the 1960s and 1970s, are much more than the venues for sports activities. According to the initiator of the campaign to award them intangible cultural heritage status, the German Football Museum in Dortmund, kickabout areas are a "formative socialisation space" for "creativity, spontaneous self-organisation, tolerance and perseverance in a strong interrelationship". So for children and adolescents the kickabout area is a "school of life" and in the Ruhrgebiet in particular they have a formative influence for many children and young people, most notably in the area's workers' housing estates.
And their recent high profile means a little more attention is currently being paid to these sports facilities. Because despite their "accolade" many kickabout areas are looking a little down at heel. After years of use, in many instances their playing surfaces – which are often artificial but sometimes also made from concrete and cinder – are worn out, while goals and basketball hoops are also frequently damaged. Although kickabout areas are still well used, there are nevertheless quite a few problems with maintenance, with vandalism a particular issue. While graffiti on the walls doesn't prevent such facilities being used, broken fences and goalposts and holes in the playing surface make playing on them much less enjoyable. Although being in the spotlight as a result of the recent award of intangible cultural status may provide a boost, kickabout areas are difficult to plan and maintain and this isn't only due to vandalism.
First of all, the expectations of such facilities have also grown. Over the last 15 years mini and small pitches have been becoming increasingly fashionable. No longer is there just a metal cage, perhaps with a small concrete wall around it, but often a pitch completely surrounded by hoardings. And artificial surfaces are also increasingly being replaced with artificial turf. Naturally this means that it is more enjoyable to play football and that the pitches are more pleasing on the eye – though such facilities are admittedly significantly more expensive to buy and also more costly to maintain. In addition, many old kickabout areas can now only be used to play football, so there is a marked decrease in multifunctionality. When the German Football Association sponsored over 1000 mini pitches around ten years ago, young amateur players were offered a new standard to which they have happily become accustomed. There are now even covered facilities, allowing football to be played in rainy weather. However, despite the impressive progress made, the financing of construction and upkeep has failed to keep pace in many places.
Sports clubs are also increasingly investing in small artificial turf pitches. In most cases – space permitting – when an artificial pitch is installed, a small pitch is also built alongside the main pitch. Though this isn't really intended for amateur players but as an additional training area which is useful for children in particular. Depending on size, it can even be used for matches in the lower age groups.
In the case of multi-purpose facilities, a modern sports surface is often used for the outside area. Basketball – though in many cases streetball would be the more accurate term – is undoubtedly the most popular sport played on kickabout areas after football. Since this sport cannot be played on artificial turf, an artificial surface is a must. In the USA such public basketball courts are far more popular than here in Germany. And the parallels with German kickabout areas are clear. Whilst here many of today's football stars honed their skills in kickabout areas, in the USA many NBA stars grew up on public basketball courts. The courts known as "The Cage" in New York's Greenwich Village district are especially renowned.
The local resident problem
In Germany one problem stands out above all others when it comes to planning and retaining a facility: the local residents. Given that kickabout areas and mini pitches are often in densely-populated areas, conflicts with neighbours are inevitable. New-build facilities often generate the most controversy and plans are often thwarted by protests from local residents. And in many instances a noise-insulating wall around a small kickabout area would have little effect.
In essence, however, kickabout areas are playgrounds and so local residents must be able to tolerate the noise of the children playing. That is if they are children. For adolescents and adults also often take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a game of football. And this can create some real legal headaches. In the case of public facilities, the responsible local authority must ensure that only children play on the pitch and it isn't sufficient simply to erect an information sign alongside. Naturally it's difficult to monitor use, but the pitch can be closed if residents are able to prove that this order isn't being complied with. This also applies in the event of regular use outside of the official opening hours. The local authority must take preventative action in particular if adolescents are using a pitch at night if it is to remain available for use.
In an age when space for development is in short supply in inner city areas, the relationship between residents and users of sports facilities is becoming increasingly fraught. Whilst clubs can communicate with their neighbours themselves and are often able to alleviate tension, the users of public pitches and kickabout areas are mostly helpless. Even if the rules are generally respected, just a few users can spoil things for everyone else by misbehaving. A clear forward-looking legal framework in the future would be a step in the right direction.
Whether it's a classic kickabout area or a modern mini pitch, one thing is for sure: in the city of the future it will be essential to provide neighbourhood sports facilities for all ages. That's why it is vital to protect existing facilities now and to carefully plan new construction projects. And not just in order to protect our cultural heritage and nurture the future stars of the Bundesliga – but because providing opportunities for everyone to pursue sport should be the overriding priority.